Latin America & Caribbean

Disappearing Duarte: Where is Veracruz's governor?

Women walk by a poster depicting outgoing Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte with the word "Wanted" at a neighbourhood in Xalapa, Mexico, October 25, 2016. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The former governor is now being sought by police and "Wanted" posters have appeared on walls

"If we caught 'El Chapo', we can catch Duarte," said Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong this week of the latest high-profile Mexican to go on the run.

Javier Duarte de Ochoa was, until 12 October, the governor of the Mexican oil-rich state of Veracruz.

He stood down to face corruption charges but a week later he had given the authorities the slip.

Nobody is quite sure where he is.

His escape may not be quite on the scale of the getaway of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman last year, but nevertheless, the Mexican government risks looking red-faced again.

It is like a scene out of a comical Cops and Robbers film.

Only there is nothing funny about Javier Duarte and the inability of the Mexican authorities to keep tabs on him is more worrying than amusing.

Dubious reputation

Javier Duarte became governor of Veracruz in 2010 and was quickly embroiled in corruption allegations.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Javier Duarte stepped down earlier this month

He is suspected of having siphoned off at least 645 million Mexican pesos ($35m; £29m) of public money that was put into a series of shell companies.

Last week, Mexico's Attorney-General Arely Gomez said an arrest warrant had been issued for Mr Duarte on suspicion of involvement in organised crime and money laundering.

There were also allegations that Mr Duarte had tried to silence his enemies.

During his tenure, Veracruz was named as the deadliest place for journalists in Mexico to work,

Since he took office, 17 journalists have been killed for motives related to their work, according to human rights organisation Article 19, which focuses on freedom of expression.

"The impunity around journalist aggressors is around 99.75% - this is huge," says Article 19's Mexico Director Ana Cristina Ruelas.

Ms Ruelas is critical of what she says is a lack of action in calling Mr Duarte's government to account.

"Impunity will not end if you only get the material actors of the crime, you need to get the intellectual actors who order the killing of these journalists."

'Worrying times'

Mr Duarte has denied the allegations made against him, but according to University of Veracruz sociologist Alberto Olvera Rivera his government was controversial from the beginning.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There has been intense media interest in Mr Duarte since the allegations surfaced

When Mr Duarte became governor, cartel violence in the state was rife.

"Slowly, from extreme violence in the first few years, we transitioned to less violence but a bigger economic crisis and we've finished his term with massive economic and security problems," says Mr Olvera Rivera.

"It's been very worrying for people in Veracruz."

Mr Olvera Rivera says you cannot understand Mr Duarte without looking at his predecessor in office.

'Mini viceroys'

Fidel Herrera was Veracruz governor for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, between 2004 and 2010.

"Duarte only had one political mentor, Fidel Herrera," says Mr Olvera Rivera.

According to Mr Olvera Rivera, he was an old-school PRI governor, "a centrist, authoritarian politician that had the advantage of being charismatic, a very intelligent man".

Mr Herrera was also listed as one of the 10 most corrupt Mexican politicians by Forbes magazine.

"But Duarte had none of those qualities. He's neither intelligent nor charismatic," Mr Olvera Rivera says.

Dario Ramirez of Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity compares Mexico's governors to "mini viceroys".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Duarte says those who have labelled him a "killer" are liars

"They've become personalities with lots of discretionary power as to what happens in the state," he says.

"There's no mechanism today to verify what they are doing with public money."

It is a phenomenon that experts trace back to 2000, when after 71 years of the PRI in power, the National Action Party (Pan) won the presidential elections.

"It fragmented power that had been concentrated in the president, it was transferred to the state governors," says Mr Olvera Rivera.

"Never before did the governors have so much power and so much money. Governors did what they wanted, not just in Veracruz but in other states too."

The PRI returned to power in 2012 when Enrique Pena Nieto won the presidency.

But despite promising to fight corruption, President Pena Nieto failed to convince Mexicans that the old party had changed.

In regional elections in June, the PRI lost several governorships including Veracruz and Tamaulipas, which they had governed for more than 80 years.

Brighter future?

Dario Ramirez sees the fact that Mr Duarte came under such pressure that he stepped down as a good sign.

"It's a triumph for journalism and civil society" he says but adds that his disappearance throws up fresh questions.

"It can't be that Mexico, with all of its intelligence and espionage apparatus, did not see this coming," he argues.

Mr Olvera Rivera is even more distrustful.

"The suspicion among the people of Veracruz is that there was a pact between the federal government and Duarte to escape and not face justice," he says.

He says that people in Veracuz suspect that some of the public money allegedly siphoned off by Mr Duarte was used to finance President Enrique Pena Nieto's presidential campaign.

"All the PRI governors in 2012 transferred huge amounts of money for his presidential campaign, so he owes them a huge favour," he alleges.

Distrust in Mexican politics in Veracruz is strong.

In December, Miguel Angel Yunes will take over as state governor and he has promised change.

But he has got a tough job ahead of him convincing people he can, for once, make a difference.

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